Friday, January 17, 2020

Painful Portraits

Edvard Munch, "The Sick Child," oil on canvas, 1885
Many family portraits are done for practice, as I mentioned in the previous post. Young artists from Degas to Dali did portraits of family when they were young aspiring artists. Of course, many were and are made not as formal portraits the way commissions are, but more as personal views of the individuals depicted. Such portraits seek something innate of the individual to suggest or depict. Many are celebratory. Some portraits, though, are made to work through feelings or ideas. Edvard Munch painted his beloved older sister when she was mortally ill with tuberculosis, for example. Some are grieving posthumous portraits like Claude Monet did ("Camille on her Deathbed"). Whatever the family circumstance, these are difficult paintings to see.

In my own archives are two family portraits that are painful but provide good examples of  work. They were done as meditations on each of the two family members, as ways of exploring feelings and triggering memories. Each of these remains in my own private collection. One is a sort of premonition and the other is posthumous. The first is an oil portrait of one of my brothers, who now has significant pulmonary disease. This portrait, painted from sketches and personal references, was done years before his disease progressed but after its ravages had already begun. He is pale and grey-pink--he had begun to fade away before our eyes, even then. Today he looks more like this portrait than ever and he lives on constant oxygen.
Hoff, "Portrait of the Artist's Brother," oil on panel, 12x16

The second portrait is actually a drawing rather than a painting. So far in my own practice I've only made a single posthumous work, the silverpoint drawing posted below. Although it is titled "The Dying Woman" and not called a portrait, the drawing is based on sketches of my mother's final weeks of suffering from metastatic lung cancer.
Hoff, "The Dying Woman," silverpoint, 8x6
Common to each of these, the cause of disease was cigarette smoking.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Portraits of Family

Durer (attrib), "The Artist's Father at 70,"oil on panel, 1497
Painters have always made images of their family members. We have examples of family portraits and family likenesses dating to at least the time of Albrecht Durer and certainly examples abound from before that. Many painters resorted to family members for sitters as a convenience, no others being available, perhaps. Some, like Lucian Freud, painted numerous family members.

Hoff, "Portrait of Kerry," digital
In my own case, family portraits have been an interesting part of my work. Over the years I've made portraits of family as gifts, as experiments, as personal studies, and sometimes as memories. A few weeks ago one of my brothers died suddenly, and during the first days afterward my initial instinct was to produce a drawing--a digitalium made on an iPad--based part in memory and part in a couple of reference photos. He was nearly seventy, usually in good humor and smiling, with a little gleam in his eye. This portrait is a memorial, and as such idealizes the subject somewhat because I wanted to show his general good humor and slightly cynical take on the world. This drawing, done only a few days after my brother's passing, may serve as fuel for an oil portrait. Time will tell. 

Hoff, "Portrait of Bill," oil on canvas.
Other portraits of my family date to several years ago, and all were done in oil paint using standard methods. In almost all cases, these images show family members and were gifted. One of my favorites is this portrait of my mother's husband, from about a decade ago. This oil on canvas was a gift to my mother and Bill not long after their late-life marriage. It is a relatively large work at 20x16, the largest portrait of this format in my portfolio.

Hoff, "Portrait of C.B." oil on panel.

A number of years earlier came this posthumous portrait of my sister, based on a high-school graduation photograph. Like the portrait of Bill, this one was a gift to her widower, and dates to more than a decade ago.

Neither of these would be acceptable as commissioned portraits, and instead represent either my personal vision of the individual or were done as mementos of a remembered life. Although artists of the past did family members from life sittings (certainly they did so before the mid-19th century), none of mine was done from life but instead from reference materials. Perhaps life sittings ought to be next.

Friday, January 10, 2020

White Rhino

Another in my endangered species series is "Rosie the Rhino," a sketch of a Northern white rhinoceros altered to show sadness at the impending demise of her species. It fascinates me how very tiny additions can provide substantial emotional content. The Northern white rhinoceros is down to two remaining females while the Southern white rhino is the most numerous of all rhinos.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Refractions and Reflections

Hoff, "Morning Light," oil on panel, 6x8, 2010
Still life in the studio during the colder months gives the chance to practice--in my work these last few days and weeks I've begun to re-explore an old interest--light, glass, and water.

Studying the way light is reflected and refracted by glass and water and what that alteration of light does to various objects is an endlessly engaging pursuit. Part of my previous sketch series of Windowsill Works involved in studying just that (right). The way light changes from morning to afternoon is particularly fascinating.

Hoff, "Two Bottles," oil on panel, 6x8
So here are a couple of small oil paintings done in a similar format to that long-ago series. These are part of increasing work in tangible materials rather than pixels. While digital drawing, and to a lesser extent, painting, provide great opportunities for quick and simple practice, there is simply nothing like working with real materials. These paintings in oil were done on small supports with a generally short time limit. The short time limit is to promote simplification, simple strokes, and an attitude of "place a stroke and leave it alone," which in turn promotes more calculating observation and mark-making. In these I've explored composition, trying to make brush strokes simple and varying edges to emphasize areas of interest. "Two Bottles," was the first of these re-examinations. I softened and blended edges, especially in the background, to make the green bottle stand out. Likewise the golden bottle has few hard edges.

Hoff, "Two Bottles Too," oil on panel, 6x8
Sometimes it's reflections that strike my interest, as in the windowsill painting of two bottles, one in shadow and one in bright light (below). In this painting, it was important to me to study the way light was reflected from various contrasting surfaces in the green bottle. The bottle on the left was in a beam of sunshine, and glowed brightly in contrast to the green one. Here again one of the goals was to work on edges.

Hoff, "Water Bottle," oil on panel, 6x8
One more bottle in this series is another translucent plastic water bottle (below). In this case my main effort was an accurate study of the water within, and how it reflected and bent the sunbeam streaming onto my studio table from the left. The drawing was less important than the light, but again edges were an important part of this work. In this case, too, I painted into a couch, an ultra-thin layer of linseed oil, which alters how paint handles.

As January proceeds, I'm hoping to do at least one small painting every day, although I'm already a bit behind. More to come.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Fearful Symmetry

Hoff, "Burning Bright," digital painting
The days are lengthening, more light and more warmth are coming and despite the cold we can feel the turn of the seasons edging forward. And the calendar shifts once more. It is the time of New Year for refocusing and reassessing, for squaring shoulders and redoubled determination. "Onward," in other words.

For me, this year will mean more painting in the real world while continuing to learn and make more digital works. The first digital work of this infant new year is this painting of an Amur tiger, the world's largest cat (males average more than 400 lb.). Formerly called the Siberian tiger, these animals are nearing extinction, sadly, with only a few hundred remaining individuals. These are utterly awesome creatures, beautiful and deadly.
One of my goals for this year is to do a series of digital paintings highlighting the beauty and tragedy of the dwindling animal world.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A Look Back - Part 2

Continuing remembrance and reassessment of 2019, Part 2. It is a good exercise for me and helps the work progress.

Hoff, "The Blue Spruce," oil on panel, 8x10
July The past summer was mostly highlighted by frequent trips outdoors to paint. The first tentative steps were (predictably for me) the environs of Druid Hill Creek, either from a deck outside the studio or on one or the other creek bank. Moving outdoors was eye-opening, particularly the opportunities for intense looking, observing deeply and minutely, spending more time on seeing than on painting. Sometimes even old dogs can learn new things.

Hoff, "The Discovery Garden, ISF," watercolor on paper, 5x9
August is the month of the famous Iowa State Fair, and as in the past several years I spent several days on the fairgrounds, looking and sketching. The daily forays provided many opportunities for watercolor sketching, and I filled pages in several sizes of sketchbooks. My new plein air easel arrived and was everything I hoped it would be, providing stability, portability, and ease of use. By the end of the month my reluctance and unfamiliarity with plein air painting faded, and outdoor work had become my primary way to make artwork.

Hoff, "Looking Northeast," oil on panel, 9x12
September in Iowa is still warm or even hot. Trees hold their leaves and the earth is sleepy but not ready to surrender to shorter days and cooler nights. That allows for more plein air sketching, so September continued to be a productive time. We spent about a third of the month visiting friends in Virginia, as we've done in years past, which gave me a lot of plein air opportunities in the Allegheny Mountains. The weather held during the end of the month, after our return to Iowa, and gave me some more outdoor painting time.

Hoff, Digital study after daVinci
While plein air work in oil and watercolor remained the focus of the summer, my daily digitalia habit blossomed into a blog of daily digital drawings. Increasingly my go-to sketch medium in the studio is a Wacom tablet and Sketchbook or ArtRage. These tools are quick, easy to use (after a significant amount of practice), and involve no cleanup, etc. You can draw faces, figures, anything really, in a very similar way to traditional media. And when switching back to traditional media the quality actually seems improved.

October became Inktober after I happened across a post about the history of that international event celebrating the now-uncommon medium of pen and ink drawing. Pen and ink was one of the mediums of the golden age of illustration over a century ago, and despite the popularity of ink-drawn comics by people like R Crumb the medium is considerably less popular. Inktober is an opportunity to draw something with ink every single day--a formidable challenge and one I took

Hoff, "Study of a Man (after Durer," ink on paper
up almost as a whim. The event has gained worldwide attention since being devised a decade ago. For those who can't find something to draw there is a suggestion of topics and there is an extensive archive on the site. The idea is to do the drawing and post it. I managed to do more than a drawing a day and posted them all here.* It was interesting to do both original drawings and copies of masters like Albrecht Durer (left).
"Tree roots (after Constable)," silverpoint

In all of that I also found some time to do metalpoint drawings and posted a couple. One of them was a copy of an old drawing by Constable of tree roots (right) that seemed suitable to the medium. (Although the date on the drawing says September I actually completed it some time during the first week of October.

"Early Snow," watercolor on paper, 9x5
November has been the month of Fall color here in Iowa during my entire time here, and this one was no exception. The trees began to change in the middle of the month and were brilliant for perhaps a week or so until a hard, killing frost came and finished everything. Luckily there was still time for some outdoor work with watercolor, and I managed a post about Fall on Druid Hill Creek. And digital dailies continued, although the most interesting of them were done from Roman sculpture busts--a form of realistic portraiture that was highly valued. There is much to learn from such work.

"Pompey" digital, from a Roman portrait bust
The remainder of the month was occupied with drawing and the beginnings of studio paintings.

December isn't over but it began with a bit of a retrospective posting of drawings in five separate media, a reminder of the diversity of this year's work. That reminder sent me through a review of the year, which is not quite over. One of the conclusions is I've done much drawing, less painting. The second is what painting I've done has been much watercolor, less oil. The plan, then, is to resume more oil painting over the winter, using natural light in the studio. Probably a lot more exploration of still life is yet to come.
*Inktober posts
Inktober Plan
Another Shot of Ink(tober)
More Inktober
Halfway Through Inktober
An Inktober Update

Friday, December 27, 2019

A Look Back - Part 1

As the end of the year and the decade approach it's time to look at this year's works and interests both for personal review and to spark new ideas.

Hoff, "Winter Snow," oil on panel, 4x6
January was when I began doing daily digital drawings, and posted the first few, although I had been exploring computer drawing programs and methods for a long while. We had a couple of deep snows that prompted tiny oil sketches (right).

During part of the month we were in France for an international circus competition. Throughout the trip I made watercolor postcards and mailed them home from Monaco, where we attended the circus. I posted several of them here during the month. I also kept a couple of small sketchbooks handy and made graphite or watercolor records, some of which I posted after we returned.

Hoff, "The Second Deep Snow," oil on panel, 6x8
February was a month of deep snow on Druid Hill Creek, and I posted watercolors showing snow at its coldest and deepest. Here is a previously unposted oil from the same period, "The Second Big Snow,"done from a studio window after the sticky stuff covered almost everything.

Hoff, "The Last Scraps," watercolor on paper, 5x9
March once again showed how the calendar turns when the month of the war god comes. The snows abated and by the end of the month the creek was showing signs of life and growth (below) although a scrap or two of snow persisted. In the studio most of my work was either digital drawing or watercolor sketches.

One post in March involved a discussion of drawing hands and featured several digitally-drawn copies of hands drawn by masters of the past. A lot my digital work has involved getting to know the interfaces but also digital work has allowed me to copy many of the masters' anatomic works. March is when I began doing digital dailies which led to a daily posting on a new blog since last July. After posting about drawing hands I added a post on drawing heads and included a few copies of masters done in various media including metalpoint.

April brought the longer days of springtime and also some diversity into the daily digital drawings I was making. I made a number of drawings of classic cars and worked on facial expressions too. The weather was
Hoff, "April on Druid Hill Creek," watercolor, 5x9
gentle, mostly, and gave me a chance to do some more studies of Druid Hill Creek as the undergrowth began to burst into leaf. Most of the bushes were honeysuckle, which runs riot along the creek bank. Although we had hints of green early in the month it really wasn't until the final two weeks that green filled the woods.

Hoff, "On the Hudson (Plum Point)," watercolor on paper 5x12
May was the month I'd looked forward to for a long while, mostly because of the opportunity to work with my friend Garin Baker a master oil painter who also teaches at the Art Students League in Manhattan. The workshop was a resounding success, and gave me the impetus to head outdoors to paint for the first time last summer. It also caused me to think about a new plein air setup, an Open Box M, which arrived later in the summer. In the meantime it was a revelation to spend time confronting the subject, reacting to the environment, "making the best of an emergency" as John Sargent used to say about plein air watercolor.
Hoff, "Downstream on Druid Hill Creek," oil on panel, 9x19
Besides that, I continued daily digital drawings, watercolor sketches, and a few other endeavors.

Hoff, "Morning, The Garden," oil on panel, 12x9
June was a month of exploration, finding likely sites for outdoor painting, sometimes just spending time looking. Not far from the studio is the Raccoon River, which joins the Des Moines River close by. The rivers make excellent spots for paintings, and I did some work there. But my first tentative steps outside were onto a shady deck where I painted a trio of houseplants that were at last returned to the outdoors. I also painted the garden terraces on the sloping creek bank outside the studio, in slating morning light. The mysterious effect of very solft edges in nearly every part of the painting was appealing.

Hoff, "Francoise Gilot," digital
Hoff, "The Dredge, Newburgh, oil on panel
June gave me an opportunity to continue working through more digital drawings, particularly of heads and expressions. And I finished a full-size studio oil of a Hudson River scene based on observations, reference pics, and an on the spot watercolor sketch.

The rest of year was heavy with outdoor painting, a new watercolor sketch group, and some work in other media as well. More in another post.